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Sign of the times: Nevada City to examine its historic district sign standards

A variance request for a large sign to be painted on the side of the National Exchange Hotel in Nevada City has been denied again, though city officials are talking about revisiting their sign ordinance.
Photo: Elias Funez

Long seen as a symbol of Nevada City’s storied history, the National Exchange Hotel now centers a debate surrounding the city’s future.

For more than a year the hotel has been seeking a variance to the city’s 24-square-foot limitation for signs painted on building exteriors, hoping to add a 100-foot vertical sign that would serve as an entrance to the historic district.

On Wednesday the Nevada City Council denied the variance for its third time, but directed staff to look into amending the ordinance to recognize more exceptions, including in the case of the hotel.



“I want us to recognize the National has been operating 165 years as a hotel,” Mayor Erin Minett said. “When that hotel was built it had a sign there, so we are restoring what was there.”

The hotel was first denied a variance by the Planning Commission in February 2020. The commission lauded the sign design, but found the application did not meet requirements for an exemption.



The City Council also complimented the design last March before a vote to deny it outright failed, leaving the commission’s decision standing and setting up Wednesday’s decision.

At the meeting the council expressed interest in expediting the amendment, even calling a special meeting if needed.

“It shouldn’t take all this effort to get a sign on a building,” Council member Doug Fleming said.

According to Planning Director Amy Wolfson, the ordinance update will first go before the Planning Commission, which recommends changes to the council. It will then require two readings at the council level before changes take effect 60 days later.

Construction continues in and outside of the National Exchange Hotel in Nevada City that is getting closer to reopening. A variance request for a large sign to be painted on the side of the National Exchange Hotel in Nevada City was recently denied.
Photo: Elias Funez

OLD AND NEW GUARD

Most public commenters were in favor of the exception, citing the importance of the hotel and the need for more flexibility in ordinances to encourage growth.

Former planning commissioner Nikaya Swartz, who resigned last month, said she’s seen first hand the hoops businesses must jump through at times to get approval.

“Like many things that came through, the fact that something as simple as a tasteful, hand painted sign was fraught with so much difficulty was and is frustrating,“ Swartz said.

On the other end of the debate, commenters felt the exception would be playing favorites and could create a slippery slope, suggesting up to a dozen other building could take advantage of the precedent.

Nevada City Clerk Niel Locke, another former commissioner, warned changing an ordinance which has shaped the last several decades of development could be disastrous.

“It will be a very major, major deal if it’s not handled correctly,” Locke said. “It could end up destroying our downtown district.”

Locke said he’s concerned the change could bring a proliferation of signs damaging the city’s aesthetic. It could also encourage more visitors than it’s ready to handle, he said, citing the explosion of visitors to the Yuba River last summer.

“I hope they remember why this community exists, and why it should be maintained,” Locke said. “I’m not opposed to having changes because all ordinances need to be changed, but you can’t destroy the heart of the community.”

City officials will discuss the timeline for the proposed amendments next week.

“We need to have some leeway, we need to have some growth, we need to start moving forward,” Minett said. “And we can do that holding onto our past.”

To contact Staff Writer John Orona, email jorona@theunion.com or call 530-477-4229.


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